A dear friend of mine, the wonderful poet and fiction writer Lisa Pasold, and her equally wonderful husband, singer Bremner Duthie came to visit My Best Beloved and me last weekend. As Lisa and I walked her whiskery hound, Barkley the talk turned, as it does among writers, to the writers’ life.
Lisa told me what fun it was hanging out with poets, how they talked about craft, and wordplay, and swapped snippets of favorite poems and how, at certain conferences, it was not unheard of they would slip poems under each other’s doors in the middle of the night.
“Fiction writers don’t do that,” she said.
We discussed how we fiction writers tend to sit around glumly and grump about how much money we’re not making.
Lisa said, “You know what I think the difference is between them?”
Barkley rolled around on the grass, in a paroxysm of sheer delight, a large green hedgeapple in her mouth. All writers should have dogs, especially fiction writers. It is impossible to be glum when watching the antics of a dog.
I said, “I think I do. It’s expectations. Poets have none.”
Lisa laughed. “Exactly. No poet expects big publishing deals, or fame, or wads of cash, or even to have many readers.”
“And so they simply enjoy the work.”
“Pretty much,” she said. “And each other. It’s easier to encourage everyone else when we feel like we’re in it together — so much less competition.”
It was splendid talking to Lisa, who is smart and sensible and funny. Plus, she comes with that great dog.
“I was talking to My Best Beloved just last night,” I said, “remembering that I became a writer not because I wanted to be famous, or rich, and certainly not because I wanted to do book tours and deal with critics and so forth… I wanted to be a writer so I could live the life of the mind, so I could read, write, reflect.”
I talked about how I remembered seeing the film “Julia” years ago about Lillian Hellman. The Hellman part was played, in an odd bit of casting, by Jane Fonda, who did a surprisingly good job with it. And I remember being struck by one scene, which I probably remember quite inaccurately. Nevertheless, in my mind, Hellman sits in an isolated cabin somewhere, in front of a battered old typewriter, ashtray nearby, and a bottle of scotch at hand. The room is cluttered, and dark, and full of books and papers. The work, as I recall, was frustrating her, but she was utterly engaged, deeply involved. The image stayed with me. That, I thought, is what I want (minus the cigarettes and scotch). I want to be absorbed in that way. I want to be doing something with my life I feel is that meaningful.
That iconic image of a woman alone, thinking, wrestling with words, ideas, sentences; with a way to make meaning of one’s experience of the world, became a lamp in a cabin window as I trudged through the confusing forest that is the writer’s life. It was what I aimed for, what I dreamed of, what I still find most satisfying. Everything else is merely the price I pay for being able to live my life in that metaphorical cabin.
I admit, I had been feeling a little glum before my chat with Lisa. It’s easy to lose sight of the lamp in the window, to wander off the writing path into a more treacherous part of the wood.
Now, I’ll just have to talk My Best Beloved into taking allergy shots so I can bring home a dog. It’s easy to lose one’s perspective, one’s sense of direction, and get lost, best to have a faithful, and amusing friend with you — one who’s quite clear on what’s really important in life.